Whenever I'm asked what my all-time favorite road is I blurt, without hesitation, "Beartooth Pass from Red Lodge, Montana to Cody, Wyoming." This road has remained prominent in my memory since the first time I scaled its switchbacks 10 years ago. I was terribly eager to see if it would live up to my idyllic remembrance when I revisited the area this summer. It was like having a date with a cherished old flame.
Montana is an exceptional place to ride motorcycles; even the interstates are sweeping and scenic. Speed laws on the unspoiled highways and state routes are somewhat negotiable, and a "reasonable and prudent" rule of thumb prevails.
Red Lodge shines with character and historical color. This town is more famous for bootlegging than the mining it was founded to support. You'll find it nestled among the rolling hills and ancient granite buttes that preface the Bighorn Mountains. U.S. Highway 212 brings you from Billings toward Beartooth Pass and Yellowstone National Park via Red Lodge. Red Lodge has grown up a lot since my last visit and there are many new facilities on the outskirts of town that polarize the haughty old section. The shops on Main Street are not your common tourist traps filled with imported baubles and gewgaws. The Western curios and Native American art are intricate and authentic. We had our best meal at Natali's Italian Pasta and Steak House.
U.S. Highway 212 runs through the core of Red Lodge then quickly climbs in sweeping arcs through a long, green valley. Not far beyond the turnoff to the Beartooth Nature Center and Wildlife Refuge is a hairpin turn that initiates a long series of switchbacks that hurry you to dizzying heights. There are two great passes on this ride, Beartooth in Montana (10,947 feet) and Dunraven in Wyoming (8859 feet). Each is the highest driveable point in its respective state.
It's always intensely chilly up here and you can make snow angels in August alongside the road. Although it's detractingly unkempt, this portion of the road more than justified my boastful remembrance.
Just beyond the actual summit you can stop at the "Top of the World" for a breather (which might require oxygen) and refreshments. If you're going to stay on U.S. Highway 212 toward Yellowstone you might want to avoid the crowds and get gas here. In this direction you'll quickly mount Colter Pass (8000 feet) then drop into Cooke City, which is the northeast gateway to the overburdened park.
It you want to skip the peas and carrots and dive straight into dessert, turn south on Wyoming State Highway 296, also known as Chief Joseph Scenic Highway . This is a terrific direction to descend out of the mountains and a great companion road to Beartooth. Some maps show the southeast section of this road as unpaved, but it's not. It's smooth, wide and gentle -- a freeway compared with the summit segment of U.S. Highway 212. The valley views are stunning and the road is pleasantly empty.
As you wind down onto the plains once more, you will be approaching State Highway 120. Turn south toward Cody to slip back to the days when the west was at its wildest.
William F. Cody, better known as "Buffalo Bill," founded this town in 1896. More than a century later only the very heart of the city truthfully echoes his passion. Cody has grown with shocking abandon since my last visit a decade ago, and what surrounds the nucleus is thin and unremarkable. The Irma hotel, named for the legendary showman's daughter, provides the city with a centerpiece. But inside the grand old building most of the tables gathered before the famous cherrywood bar are sadly in need of dusting. You have to dig deep to find the delicious roots of this town, such as the nightly rodeo held from June through August. And Cody's Buffalo Bill Historical Center is definitely worth visiting.
Fifty-two miles west of Cody on U.S. Highway 16 is the east entrance into Yellowstone. This is the western component of the Beartooth loop, which will deliver you back to Red Lodge if you go north on Grand Loop Road at Fishing Bridge. Going south at this junction will lead you (ever so slowly) to Jackson, Wyoming via the Grand Tetons.
The Beartooth Scenic Byway is one of the most thrilling roads in America and remains unchallenged as my all-time favorite ride. However, I think it only prudent that I dedicate the next 10 years or so to making absolutely sure there's not some other even more incredible road waiting to claim the title. It's a dirty job...and I intend to keep doing it.
If you'd like to share your favorite ride that is 100 to 500 miles long and includes at least one interesting stop, send details of the route and your contact information to Motorcycle Cruiser, 6420 Wilshire Blvd. Floor 17, Los Angeles, CA 90048-5515; or e-mail Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com.